The past month has had such focus on Tim Geithner and the "Stimulus Package" that there has not been much air left for other aspects of the Obama administration, such as his December 20 appointment of his science team. In many regards, they are most impressive:
- John Holdren, an environmental professor at Harvard, will be Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, among other titles;
- Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate with a focus on cancer research - and a current book titled "The Art and Politics of Science" - will be co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST);
- Eric Lander, a biology professor from MIT, and a driving force behind the discovery of the human genome, will also be a co-chair of the PCAST;
- Jane Lubchenco, an environmentalist and marine biologist from Oregon State, will be head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;
- Added to this group should be Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physics professor from Cal Berkeley who will be Secretary of Energy.
In the long run, America's prosperity has been based in large part on a unique ability to commercialize leading technology. The Wright Brothers; Thomas Edison; Henry Ford. In recent times, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page/Sergey Brin (Google). Basic research comes from our world-leading graduate schools, and from the government (the nuclear Manhattan Project; NASA; the Internet), and the resulting private businesses have been magnets for global talent and capital.
One can hope that the Obama administration does two things with these leaders:
1. Sustains the undergraduate and post-graduate academic fountain, including National Science Foundation project funding. The explosion of information technology in the past few decades will be matched by biological technology in the next, and principled US leadership is essential.
2. Acts in a fact-based manner at the intersection of the environment and economic development. Applying the scientific method (assembling data; creating hypotheses; seeking conflicting data; testing; revising hypotheses), they should ask:
a. Is the planet warming?
b. To what extent is this a function of man's activities, as opposed to natural cycles;
c. What is the cost-benefit of specific measures to arrest the trend?
If the country is to eventually make its way out of our economic trough, and if our best days are ahead of us, it will not only be because we get back on a prudent financial path. It will also be because we continue to be the best in the world at harnessing technology, and remain practical in our trade-offs. Democrats have complained about politics influencing science from the right; now the risk exists from the left.
This week's You Tube is a brief Jay Leno riff on Charlie Rangel, the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee - a bookend for Tim Geithner on writing and implementing the tax code. Where is the outrage?
Bill Bowen - 1/30/09